Next-Gen 911

No Easy Answers for S.F.'s Frustrated, Overworked 911 Dispatchers

A massive blackout in April exposed problems with San Francisco’s 911 system. Only nine dispatchers were answering phones when the power went out and hundreds of calls poured in.

by Rachel Swan, San Francisco Chronicle / June 13, 2017
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(TNS) - Population growth, complaints about homeless camps and accidental cell phone dials are all putting severe stress on San Francisco’s 911 dispatchers, who now handle 37 percent more calls than they did in 2011.

But the demands of the job also lead to a high burnout rate, and the city’s Department of Emergency Management is struggling to replace people who leave.

“It’s a perfect storm,” said Supervisor Aaron Peskin, promising to set aside more money in the next city budget for the beleaguered 911 employees who lined up to speak during a hearing Monday at the board’s Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee.

Peskin called the hearing after a massive blackout in April exposed problems with San Francisco’s 911 system. Only nine dispatchers were answering phones when the power went out and hundreds of calls poured in.

Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who chairs the committee, expressed shock over the working conditions for San Francisco’s 123 dispatchers and 32 supervisors — they routinely work 16-hour shifts to deal with the call volume.

“I couldn’t imagine sitting there even for one day, handling crisis after crisis,” she said.

To Burt Wilson, president of the dispatchers chapter of SEIU Local 1021, the increase in calls should have been easy to predict, given the tent cities that are popping up next to high-end real estate developments. He and others said that San Francisco’s 911 employees are overwhelmed with low-level, quality-of -life complaints, in addition to medical emergencies.

No easy answers emerged, and the supervisors said they would hold another hearing to discuss possible improvements for the Department of Emergency Management, which currently answers about 75 percent of 911 calls within 10 seconds — still a far cry from its target rate of 90 percent.

Fixing that problem may take years, the department’s Deputy Director Rob Smuts said, given the number of people quitting or retiring and the time it takes to train replacements.

Peskin suggested the city try to help in the meantime by starting a public education campaign about “the misuse of 911.”

“If people understood that calling about a homeless encampment could lead to someone dying, then maybe they wouldn’t call,” he said.

— Rachel Swan

Email: cityinsider@sfchronicle.com, rswan@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @sfcityinsider @rachelswan

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